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A Times Editorial

Clouding the issue

The president is embracing a rigid, moralistic view of therapeutic cloning that would deny many Americans the potential benefits of promising medical research.

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2002

The president is embracing a rigid, moralistic view of therapeutic cloning that would deny many Americans the potential benefits of promising medical research.

Eight months ago, President Bush addressed the nation on stem cell research and arrived at a compromise that may have been narrow but at least was well-reasoned. This month, he tossed reason out the window and launched an emotional campaign against therapeutic cloning, which could be vital to that research. If he wins the battle in Congress, the president will have let a rigid, moralistic view of such medical research suppress its potential.

The subject of cloning is admittedly complex and morally troubling, but the president purposely used that complexity to cloud the issue. In a speech on April 10, surrounded by his supporters, he said: "Research cloning (also called therapeutic cloning) would contradict the most fundamental principle of medical ethics, that no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another."

The president uses the argument against therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning interchangeably, stating that the result of both is the creation of "human life." But there is a significant difference. Americans, including Congress, have unequivocally rejected reproductive cloning, in which a human egg is cloned, implanted into a woman's uterus and allowed to grow into a fully developed fetus.

Therapeutic cloning would fertilize an egg with a skin cell and allow a rudimentary embryo to develop -- about 100 cells, no bigger than the head of a pin -- in a laboratory. From those cells, scientists could extract stem cells that might be capable of replacing damaged cells that cause debilitating conditions such as heart disease, Parkinson's, diabetes and spinal cord injury.

Are such clusters of cells "human life" as the president says? Americans undoubtedly have differing opinions on that and probably need more information before they can answer the question with any certainty. Many of those who rule out such use of cloned embryos have taken a hypocritical stance, because they favor in-vitro fertilization for infertile couples. Yet the in-vitro process knowingly creates excessive embryos and forces some women to make the difficult choice of which embryos to keep and which to destroy.

In fact, Bush allowed stem cells from some of those surplus embryos to be used in medical research. If the president believes one collection of embryonic cells is inviolable and the other isn't, he should explain why that is so.

There is another side that Americans should hear. A statement dated April 10 and signed by 40 Nobel Prize winners concludes that while cloning a human being should be prohibited, a ban on cloning for therapeutic research "would impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man."

While we don't know if stem cell research will ever realize its potential, we cannot afford to ignore the promise of medical science to save millions of Americans from great suffering and early death. Not only would President Bush banish cloning research from the United States, the Republicans' cloning bill in the House would actually made it illegal for Americans to benefit from such research conducted outside the country.

The Senate is equally divided on the therapeutic cloning issue, with enough undecided senators to leave the outcome in doubt. That is apparently the reason Bush decided to introduce moralistic simplicity to the debate. "It's a fluid situation, and I think the president thinks he can win," one of his advisers told the New York Times.

Maybe the president can win the political battle, but by doing so, he will have denied all Americans a fair and full consideration of an important issue.

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